Sebastien Grainger Moves Mountains
On the phone from his Toronto neighbourhood, Sebastien Grainger is walking off a heavy dinner of jerk chicken and Irish moss. Early in our conversation, he continually references stand-up comedy, from modern greats like Ricky Gervais and Patton Oswalt to the political humour of the legendary Lenny Bruce, to whom he feels a special connection. "I’ve definitely [had] problems with people thinking I was saying one thing when I meant the other thing, either lyrically or with stage banter sometimes,” he explains. "I can get carried away, and people either take me too seriously or not seriously enough. I feel like maybe I owe him more than I knew.”When it comes to Grainger’s former persona, getting "carried away” might be an understatement. Grainger cut his teeth as the drummer and vocalist for Death From Above 1979, the rumbling bass and drums duo who rose to prominence when their lone LP, 2004’s I’m a Woman, You’re a Machine erupted on a global scale. Back then, he was a whole lot cockier, talking shit between songs and making fun of the audience. In many ways, that was the band: hell bent on pillaging the world with isolating bass fuzz and piss-taking cynicism, their addictive and raw sound often uprooted by their cool egos.
Today Grainger is a new man. Jovial and high-spirited, he’s traded his cynicism and unapproachable persona for openness and honesty. When Death From Above 1979 disbanded in 2006, he disappeared for a little soul-searching. "I kind of rebuilt my life,” he reflects. "I relearned how to be a friend and a boyfriend and how to live in a neighbourhood. I relearned how to be a musician and songwriter. At a point, I was fully cleansed and rehabilitated.”
The result of that decision is Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains, his new, mostly solo project. After over a year in the studio, the Mountains’ self-titled debut trades hipster posturing for soulful rock’n’roll, combining Grainger’s sassy post-punk tendencies with elements of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Prince. It’s the sound of an artist ditching notions of "cool” and following what feels right on both a personal and musical level. "I was looking for truth and love, and I found it,” he says. "I’ve wanted to be this specific artist for 15 years.”
This stone-cold honesty sounds strange, given the combative persona that Grainger exhibited a few years ago. It got to the point where he seemed to be intentionally pitting the band against the world. Take, for example, the legal complications when Death From Above 1979 first signed to Vice Records. At the time, they were simply called Death From Above, which set off some legal red flags with DFA Records head James Murphy. When he approached the band to discuss the solution, Grainger posted the following message on their blog: "FUCK DFA RECORDS FUCK JAMES MURPHY WE DECLARE JIHAD ON THEM HOLY WAR ENDING IN THIER [sic] DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT... james murphy is a selfish piece of fuck that will burn in the flames of a specially dedicated rock and roll jihad. if i had the resources i would fly a plane into his skull.”
Grainger started DFA79 with Jesse F. Keeler, who had previously drawn attention in Black Cat #13 and the Crimson Curse, two projects with strong ties to the Southern California post-hardcore scene. The signs of a hipper-than-thou attitude were there from the beginning. "I went away to Montreal for a few years, and when I came back he just seemed to be part of the scenery,” Grainger recalls. "I met him on the street and he acted like a rock star, and he was a guy in his mid-20s who lived with his parents. He was an interesting character.”
DFA 1979’s limited career arc was foreshadowed from the beginning. "Going into it, we knew there was a shelf life,” Grainger recalls. "We never thought of it as a career band. From the first practice we looked at it as a platform to launch our own personal careers. We came into it as solo artists.” Still, with their buzz-saw bass, erratic drumming and anthemic songwriting, DFA79 plugged in to the same early 2000s post-punk audience that had the Locust and the Blood Brothers fielding major label offers. The album reached a vast audience, selling thousands of records and launching massive international tours.
In the midst of all the chaos, the band hit a creative wall. Busy with seemingly endless world tours, they hadn’t written a new song in over a year. "We did this thing together, which was the show, but there was no creativity between us,” Grainger recalls. "I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t recording — I wasn’t doing anything. I was basically just playing this part. My mom would ask me if I was happy, and I’d be in Japan and say, ‘Of course I’m happy! I’m in Japan playing music with my band!’ All of the factors on paper looked good and were a recipe for what I wanted my life to be, but I felt pretty confined in that band.”
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